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An unexpected sympathy for women @almaclassics #101pages

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Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant
Translated by Anthony Brown

I posted a little while ago about a new range of bite-sized classics from lovely Alma Books under the 101 Pages imprint; the publisher had kindly provided a review copy of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” and I had honestly expected to get to it sooner. You know how it is, though – so many books and they keep jostling for attention… However, these little books are designed to be eaten up in one gulp and I did indeed swallow this one down in a single setting one quiet Sunday morning – and an unexpected and interesting read it was…

OK, OK – I’m sorry about all the eating references in that first paragraph, but it’s kind of relevant to the title story of this collection! “Boule de Suif” is one of Maupassant’s best known works, and I’ve seen it translated as “Butterball” before. However, in his fascinating introduction, translator Anthony Brown goes into detail about the linguistic issues behind rendering the French title in English, and in the end opts to retain the original. But as he makes clear, the story itself is ridden with the imagery of food, and even in the description of the heroine, a prostitute of generous physical form.

Anyway. The book itself contains six stories, mostly set in and around Rouen, and the events in “Boule…” take place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Rouen is lost to the Germans and occupied; the citizens adapt to the situation; and eventually a group of ten are given permission to flee to Le Havre by coach. Unfortunately, bad weather causes issues and the travellers are stranded in Totes, Prussian-held territory. Despite their passes, an officer refuses to let them leave; and eventually the travellers realise that unless Elisabeth Rousset (the titular butterball) agrees to sleep with him, they will be stranded indefinitely. The attitude of the travellers to the woman of the night amongst them has been complex throughout; initially they shunned her, until they realised she had enough food for them to eat while they were delayed during the journey. An uneasy tolerance is established, but when it becomes clear that Elisabeth has principles and patriotism, refusing to sully herself with the enemy, they turn against her and bully, cajole and persuade her to give in to the officer so they can leave. Once she has finally capitulated, they shun her.

The author – with a fairly alarming ‘tache!
(Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

So not a pleasant bunch, and Maupassant is scathing in his descriptions of all of the characters in the story, dissecting them mercilessly; the rich, of course, are beyond the pale, but a pair of nuns who should show kindness certainly do not. And the democrat Cornudet is just as unpleasant, only interested in Elisabeth for her body. The one character who comes out of the story with any kind of dignity is Elisabeth herself; she is the one who is kind and shares her food, she is the one who is patriotic and refuses to collaborate with the enemy; and she is the one with the courage to want to stand up to the Prussians.

And this tendency to empathise with the women characters is a thread that runs through this excellent collection of stories. In “The Confession”, the poverty of a country girl’s life contributes to the ease with which she’s seduced by an unscrupulous carter; “First Snow” is a moving story of a woman married to a cold husband in a cold climate; “Rose” is a humorous tale of a very unusual lady’s maid; “The Dowry” is a cautionary tale for the rich bride; and “Bed 29” returns to the 1870 war, dealing with men and women’s different methods of fighting the enemy, and the differing attitudes to both sexes.

“Boule de Suif” is a real gem of a book. These stories are moving, humorous, tough and tragic, and I really wasn’t expecting Maupassant’s sympathies to be so much with his women characters. The only Maupassant story I can be sure I’ve read is “Like Death” (although I do have “Bel-Ami” on the shelves somewhere) and these short works are quite different to that. The 101 Pages books are obviously a great initiative and if the rest are anything like as good as this collection I may have to be adding yet more books to the shelves…. =:o

Skinny Book Therapy! @almaclassics @almabooks

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What on earth is she wittering on about, I hear you cry! Well, simply that in our modern crazy-busy world it’s often impossible to find the time to read a classic because, frankly, some of them are just *soooo* big! Dickens, Dostoevsky, Trollope, Tolstoy – all produced some amazing books, many of which are my favourites; but they are, honestly, doorsteps. Now I love a brick of a book as much as the next reader, but sometimes I struggle to engage mentally with one, particularly when I’m going through a busy phase at work. However, a useful solution is at hand…. 🙂

I review books from the lovely publisher Alma regularly on the Ramblings, and their Evergreens series of affordable classics is a joy. These feature some truly great authors, from Woolf through Mansfield and back to Austen and the Brontes and so on. The books are always beautiful and often have extra supporting material. Plus they publish pretty new editions of my beloved Dostoevsky on a regular basis so that has to be good…. (note the editions in that *large* TBR pile!)

However, Alma have come up with an interesting new series entitled “101-page Classics” which features books of, you’ve guessed it, 101 pages in length! Now 101 pages is a very manageable size – I can read something that long in one go usually – and so I think this is a fabulous idea! There are 12 titles on the list so far, and the authors are a very nice selection, including Chekhov, Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson and Italo Svevo – so plenty of variety. Alma have been kind enough to provide a review copy of Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” which I plan to read and review very soon, and there’s a serious risk of me wanting to start a special shelf for the 101 books…

Here are a few cover images of some of the forthcoming books – do check these out, especially if you’re nervous of a big fat chunky classic, or embarking on 800 pages from an author new to you – a 101-page Classic could be just the thing to help out…

The Curse of Memory

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Like Death by Guy de Maupassant
Translated from the French by Richard Howard

I sometimes ask myself how it is I’ve managed to get through all these years of reading without picking up a book by a particular author, and Guy de Maupassant is a case in point. For as long as I’ve been reading books in translation I’ve been aware of his name, as well as his novel “Bel-Ami”, but the only things I can be sure I’ve read are a few short stories by him in anthologies. So when a review copy of this rather lovely novel from NYRB popped through the door I was quite pleased to have the opportunity to read something more substantial by him.

Maupassant had a short and somewhat colourful life, dying in 1893 of syphilis at the age of only 42, but he left a substantial legacy of work, particularly in the short story form. His novels are apparently less well-read but on the basis of this one, that’s a shame. The focal character of the book is Olivier Bertin; a famous artist who made his name when young, he’s basically become a society painter and at many points in the book we see him struggling to find a suitable subject for his work. Now well passed his first flush of youth (he’s constantly referred to as old, though is probably what we would now think of as middle-aged), Bertin has a long-term lover in the form of Anne, Countess de Guilleroy. The two have had their relationship for some time, and although Anne has a husband and daughter, she and Bertin are almost like an old married couple, albeit one needing to be kept under wraps!

Anne’s daughter Annette used to visit Bertin’s studio with her mother when she was a child; however, she’s been away in the country for many years and now grown to young womanhood returns to Paris to be married off in a suitable society match. Bertin is shocked when he sees Annette by the resemblance to her mother when he first knew her, and slowly but surely he develops an obsession with the younger woman until the passion he feels and the jealousy this causes begins to cause a death-blow to the relationship. Anne is of course tormented by her own ageing process and to feel herself supplanted by her own daughter is agony. Annette is oblivious to what is happening, content instead to look forward to making her own suitable match. Bertin meanwhile spends much of the book in denial, and when he finally admits the truth to himself is incapable of dealing with the situation. As my children would say quirkily, ‘end well this will not…’

“Like Death” is a beautifully written and reflective book, full of passion and melodrama, but with more depth than might be thought at first. French society life is seen for what it is, with marriages made for convenience and conventions observed; and Annette herself is content to make a suitable match with a man who will share her love of horses and riding, no doubt with the option of taking a lover herself at a later date should she feel the need.

The author

Bertin himself is perhaps something of a misfit; not quite of the same class as people like the Countess, his celebrity has allowed him access to that strata of society although he has maintained a certain air of being an outsider. In several places during the story, he displays sadness at remaining a bachelor and having no family life, wishing instead he had a cosy domestic setting with Anne. Perhaps that’s a reflection on the ageing process, as the bachelor life is all well and good while you’re young, but there comes a point where it’s no longer fun.

And Maupassant’s writing is really excellent; one piece that specifically stood out for me was the part when a character, having lost their mother, reflected on the massive loss in their life of the person who knew them best, had memories they would never get back and was always there for them in their life. It’s a powerful piece of writing and resonated strongly, as I was reading it on Mother’s Day.

But central, of course, to the novel is Bertin’s dreadful emotional suffering:

Oh, had they foreseen, had they proved the distracted love of an aged man for a young girl, how would they have expressed the frightful and secret striving of a being who can no longer inspire love, the torments of fruitless desire, and, worse than a vulture’s beak, the face of a little blonde tearing an old heart to pieces!

However, the situation is not as simple as just the infatuation of an old man with a young girl. Bertin is infatuated with his past and his early love of Anne, the girl’s mother. Initially, his obsession rekindles his love for Anne until eventually the daughter takes the place in his heart of the mother. At times, Maupassant stresses the confusion between the two women who are so alike, and it seems from Bertin’s point of view that they almost merge into one. It is only when fate intervenes and dictates that Annette must wear mourning that the resemblance becomes startling – for it was in mourning clothes that Bertin first saw Anne and painted his great portrait of her. It is here that he reaches the point of no return in his obsession with Anne. He also receives a number of blows towards the end of the book; as well as his doomed love, his work is mocked by the younger generation and his yearning for a lost youth takes on even more pathos.

But it’s not only Bertin has to deal with the effects of ageing, as Anne is devastated to realise that her looks, upon which she places so much store, are fading, a process exacerbated by grief. Despite all her artifice, she cannot compete with the youth and freshness of her own daughter, and added to the pain she feels about this is the realisation that her lover finds her own child more attractive than herself.

In a short but intriguing foreword, translator Richard Howard ponders comparisons of Maupassant’s and Proust’s work, contrasting the similarities in their ways of dealing with the process of memory. Certainly, that seems to have been an important factor in both authors’ work (at least, in what I’ve read so far) and it’s fascinating to speculate as to how much of an influence, if at all, Maupassant was on the later writer. Ironically, it’s a cruel trick of memory that brings about the crisis in “LD” and perhaps we are more under the spell of our pasts than we would care to admit.

So my first proper reading of Maupassant was a memorable and absorbing one, capturing the emotional life of society Parisians, but also delving deeper into the effects of memory on the human psyche. An excellent novel and hopefully not the last time I’ll spend time in the company of this author.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks)

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